Iraq war disillusioning youth, New Republic editor says
The Iraq war causes disillusionment in today's youth similar to the effects of World War I and the Vietnam War, Peter Beinart, the editor-at-large for The New Republic magazine, said in a lecture yesterday.
"We are in the early stages of the third great disillusionment of the past 100 years," he said, comparing the effects of the current war in Iraq on today's youth to the ways that the aftermath of World War I and the Vietnam War disillusioned the younger generations of their respective time periods.
Beinart, a Rhodes scholar and the editor of The New Republic for seven years, addressed about 80 Princeton students and faculty in Robertson Hall in a lecture sponsored by the Wilson School.
During World War I, Beinart said, Americans — especially young Americans — believed the war would be a vehicle for spreading democracy throughout Europe. Following the end of the war, however, the young generation, which had so fervently believed in the ideals the war stood for, were disillusioned by the defeat of Wilson's 14 Points and League of Nations proposals.
"The aftermath of World War I, as Americans begin to lose their faith in authority and question whether our democratic ideals are really applicable to Europe, is instructive to look at today," Beinart said.
Following World War I, he added, America's economic success from the mid-1940s to mid-1960s led to a second cycle of renewed faith in authority and renewed belief that American democratic ideals are universal.
In the 1970s, however, the loss of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and two of the worst economic recessions since the Great Depression led to a massive decline in Americans' faith in political authority, Beinart said.
The Vietnam War also caused Americans to doubt the power of their technology, since it showed that a much less industrialized nation could defeat advanced American arms.
"During and after the Vietnam War, it seemed liked nationalism was a much more powerful force than democracy in Vietnam," Beinart said. "This contributed to a growing sense in the 1970s that the world did not want American democracy, a sentiment which severely disillusioned the young generation which had initially been so committed to spreading our democratic ideals.
"In 1971, 50 percent of college students polled said that America is a sick culture."
Since the Vietnam War, Beinart claimed, American youth have regained their faith in the authority of their government and the universality of American democratic ideals, following recent historical events like the fall of communism in Europe in 1989.
Moreover, Beinart said, the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo reinforced the belief that democracy applied to the Balkans, while the 1991 Gulf War demonstrated the superiority of American military technology.
The huge economic boom of the 1990s also contributed to a renewed confidence in American government and the sense that America's economic and political models are universal. Beinart says that even Sept. 11, 2001, heightened the American sensibility of trust in the government because there was a renewed reverence and intense patriotism for America.
But with regard to the war in Iraq, Beinart said, "What we are now seeing ... is that American youth are once again coming to the conclusion that nationalism is much more universal than democracy and that our government is very untrustworthy."
Beinart concluded his discussion of these three cycles of disillusionment in the United States by urging today's generation of college students to balance these perspectives on the credibility of the government and the universality of democracy.
"Your challenge," Beinart said, "is to hold both of these ideas in your head. To fight against hubris, to doubt yourself and to question the government, but still fight against defeatism, cynicism and despair."
"Your challenge is to look at this country critically but believe in it all the same."
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